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Spain withdraws after island deal

flag lowered
Spanish soldiers lower a pole with the Spanish flag as they prepare to leave Perejil Island on Saturday.  

MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spain and Morocco resolved their dispute over a tiny Mediterranean island Saturday, and Spain began withdrawing its troops shortly thereafter, a Spanish Defense Ministry official told CNN.

The Spanish flag was lowered on the island before the country's 75 troops were ferried by helicopters at 10 p.m. (4 p.m. EDT) to the nearby Spanish enclave city of Ceuta, the official said.

Ceuta is located on the North African coast, nearly surrounded by Morocco.

The island, called Perejil by Spain, and Leila by Morocco, is about 200 yards off Morocco's northern coast in the Mediterranean near the Strait of Gibraltar.

It emerged as a center of controversy 10 days ago when Moroccan troops clambered atop the rock and planted their flag on it.

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Last Wednesday, several dozen Spanish commandos captured the six Moroccans who were still there, sent them home and dug themselves in, saying they would leave only if they received diplomatic guarantees from Morocco that it would not reoccupy the island.

The turf battle had strained relations between the two countries.

Both Spain and Morocco have joint use of Perejil, a rocky island about the size of a football field off the Moroccan coast. Morocco uses the island to graze goats but it is believed to be a haven for drug smugglers.

Morocco claims Perejil as part of its territory, but Madrid says the island is Spanish and that the two countries had agreed years ago to leave it uninhabited. (Island facts)

Disputes over Perejil, and other enclaves such as Ceuta and Melilla, have been a constant thorn in relations between the two countries for centuries, despite the two sharing trade links and considerable aid packages from Spain. Other issues of contention include fishing rights and immigration.

The resolution is expected to return the island to what it had been for decades -- an uninhabited rock -- barren and largely ignored.

A statement from the Spanish government's office of chief spokesman was released shortly before the troops were withdrawn. "Spain and Morocco have reached an agreement over Perejil Island that means a return to the status quo," it said.

"The government of Spain thanks the U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, for the work undertaken to facilitate this agreement."

The foreign affairs ministers of Spain and Morocco will meet Monday in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, the statement said.

A senior U.S. State Department official said the agreement was the result of some 30 or 40 phone calls among Powell, Morocco's King Mohammed VI and the foreign ministers of Morocco and Spain over the last few days.

"In accordance with this understanding, the two sides have agreed to restore the situation regarding the island that existed prior to July 2002. We believe this understanding is in the interests of both countries, and can serve as the basis for further steps in improving their bilateral relations," Powell said in a statement.

-- CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.


• Spain
• Morocco

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